For more than two decades, agronomer German Alonso Vélez has led a most unusual campaign, and one, which, until September, rarely made the headlines. As the director of the non-governmental organization Semillas, Vélez wants to see Colombia’s native seeds circulating freely across the territory. This may seem a very unnewsworthy request, but the issue is highly contentious for tens of thousands of Colombian farmers who are forced to buy, for every planting season, seeds which are certified under the classification system of the country’s agricultural institute, ICA.
As one of the long list of grievances by the farmers who went on strike during the summer , trying to find solutions to their economic conditions, made worse by high gasoline prices, burdensome tariffs on imported pesticides, the issue of the “free flow” of seeds in one of the world’s most agriculturally-diverse nations dates back to 2010 when a resolution known as 9.70 was presented by ICA.
Essentially Resolution 9.70 gives policing powers to ICA in order to fine or jail those who exchange “criolla” seeds (those native to the country) and which haven’t been rubber stamped by the entity.
Let’s assume you are a small farmer with a certain variety of corn, and you want to give away your seeds to a fellow farmer, to eventually put them in the town market. In theory, it’s a noble objective, plant more varieties of food, and hence, everyone benefits; even the soil. “Colombia should be food sufficient,” claims Vélez, “but we are not.” So serious is this issue with farmers that to a large degree it fueled the mass protests and which made headlines around the world.
Adding discord to the issue of free circulating “criolla” seeds, a documentary by journalist Victoria Solano titled 9.70 has gone viral on social media showing how representatives of ICA were confiscating rice from farmers in the small community of Campoalegre, Huila. Accompanied by anti-riot police of the ESMAD (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios), they went as far as to destroy 70 tons of rice belonging to small-scale farmers.
According to Germán Vélez, the destruction of crops and grains is totally unacceptable in a country which takes great pride in working the land. In 2010 when Regulation 9.70 was presented, it immediately had a profound impact on Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities who had been sharing seeds and sending them to the market without the real fear of seeing them seized or destroyed. Seed sharing is a tradition deeply rooted in Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities dating back to the Spanish conquest of the Americas. “Seeds don’t belong to governments,”claims Vélez. “They belong to peoples.”
Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, during the first week of September took into consideration the anger surrounding article 9.70 and “froze” all the conditions, which could affect small time farmers from being penalized for reusing their seeds. The president also committed his government to revise certain regulations regarding the importation of foreign-grown grains and produce, which form part of the nation’s agricultural basket. For seed campaigner, German Vélez, although the intentions of Santos are a small step in the right direction, the greater threats surrounding genetically modified crops destroying locally grown agriculture have yet to be fully understood by a majority of Colombians.
German Vélez first took up the challenge of defending Colombia’s food diversity when in 1998 he went to work with indigenous communities in the Amazon basin. Looking at how small and remote towns established self-sufficient orchards and food networks, the agronomer began gathering research material on the Amazon’s extensive agro-diversity, and a “know-how” which could be applied to other rural and vulnerable communities.
With the help of Swissaid Foundation, Semillas got off the ground and began working closely with small-scale farmers in the Tolima and Cauca departments. The founding objective was to protect existing land titles as well as, the conservation of forests, water sources and traditional food diversification. Part of the NGO’s greater philosophy was to educate farmers of their agricultural rights. “We studied traditional agriculture and saw how it applies on a national scale,” states Vélez. “If Colombia is not careful in protecting its traditional farming methods, it could become 100 percent dependent on foreign grown foods, especially GMOs.”
The introduction and expansion of genetically engineered crops in the late 1990s has also impacted adversely the livelihoods of Colombia’s small-time farmers. In order to get the message out regarding the importance of seed preservation and their right to circulate, Semillas began publishing highly detailed journals and academic papers on all issues agricultural. The organization now forms part of the regional network “Red Semillas Libres” which encourages “seed independence” in farming communities.
Beyond the national implications of Resolution 9.70 are the effects on farmers of the Free Trade Agreements signed into effect between Colombia and the United States, Canada and the European Union. According to Vélez, seeds are restricted “intellectual property” under the International Convention for the Protec- tion of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), revised at a Geneva Convention in 1991. The agronomer also emphasizes that U.S President Barack Obama gave his thumbs up for a free trade agreement between the United States and Colombia under the condition the Colombian Congress ratify Law 1518 which enforces UPOV 91 in this country. “We basically imprisoned our agro-diversity,” states Vélez. “By privatizing our seeds we began eroding our agricultural autonomy.”
If government controls the use of seeds, it controls what is planted, and what we end up eating. For Vélez, Colombia’s farming predicament comes down to pushing through laws which have benefitted large agro-industrial complexes at the expense of traditional farmers. He cites specific cases of the collapse of Tolima’s cotton industry, once farms were forced to buy genetically-modified seeds from Monsanto. In 2008, Tolima lost 50 to 75 percent of its cotton production when farmers converted to GMOs, representing millions in lost revenue. Had farmers refused to buy Monsanto seeds and continued using their native – “criolla” – ones, Colombia’s cotton industry would not have faced certain death. A similar agricultural disaster unraveled in the department of Cordoba. According to Semillas, Monsanto was only fined by ICA a meagre $515 million pesos (USD $300,000) in damages to the nation’s cotton farmers.
Challenging the practices of the monopolies which govern much of Colombia’s agriculture is an integral part of Semillas’ work. “There have to be controls which govern our food sovereignty,” states Vélez. “We should control which seeds are introduced to the country and can harm local ones. We shouldn’t be persecuting the seeds which are native to our soil.”
Like many others who are connected to the land, and have a profound understanding of the issues driving the current Paro Agrario strike, Vélez believes Colombians are staring at the “tip of the iceberg” of an impending food crisis, un- less drastic measures are implemented to protect agricultural diversity. “It’s no longer viable for a dairy farm to make ends meet with three cows. Unless there are profound structural changes to current development models, we will be totally dependent on monopolies for food,” affirms Vélez.
The debate over what constitutes a “certified” seed and its commercial uses has been high on the political agenda during the recent Paro Agrario. For Vélez, only the hard work of small farmers can guarantee we’ll have locally-grown food on the table in the years to come. According to the researcher, 70 percent of all the corn cultivated in the country still comes from small, traditional farms. With high numbers for beans, yucca and other perishables, he points to the success of grassroots initiatives by indigenous farmers to make their arable land free of GMOs.
Seeds have been sacred to the many peoples which have inhabited the rainforests and mountains for the Andes for centuries. In this Republic of “seeds” and much-praised bio-diversity, agrarian leaders such as German Vélez have an increasingly important message to get across: we must defend that which is natural at any expense, because disease and famine don’t respect borders.